Rabbi Amnon Yitzhak, a controversial “baal teshuvah rabbi” whose lively appearances pack stadiums in Israel, is coming to New York for an evening of Torah on June 25 at the Master Theater on Brighton Beach Avenue. The Jewish Press spoke to him in advance of his visit.
The Jewish Press: I’m sure many of our readers would like to know why you dress the way you do.
Rabbi Yitzhak: Two reasons: 1) to follow the laws of modesty according to the custom of my Yemenite ancestors; 2) to protest the crime the secular Zionists committed in the early years of the state of Israel when they stripped Yemenite immigrants of their traditional garb and cut off their peyot.
You did not grow up observant. What sparked your path of teshuvah?
One day when I was 24 years old, I visited my parents in their home in Tel Aviv. As I gazed at their bookcase, an unexpected memory popped into my head. I remembered that at my bar mitzvah, someone gave me a book instead of a check. And sure enough, on the shelf was the gift, Kitzur Shulchan Aruch – a book I had never opened before.
On the very first page it is written: “‘I have set the L-rd always before me’ – this is a cardinal principle of the Torah and a fundamental rule among the righteous who walk before the L-rd…as it is said: ‘Can a man hide himself in secret places that I cannot see him?’”
Immediately, a spirit of teshuvah filled my being with the recognition that Hashem views all of our deeds. From that moment on, I studied all the books on Judaism I could find. For several years, when I wasn’t sleeping or catching a quick bite to eat, I would learn with a never-ending enthusiasm.
How did you go from learning to teaching?
The learning never stops. In fact, teaching is the best way to learn. One day, a neighbor asked me a question about Judaism, and he enjoyed my answer so much that he invited me to meet with some people from the neighborhood to answer their questions as well.
That’s how it all started – from one chug bayit to the next, one synagogue shiur after the other, one packed hall after the next, until I became known as the “baal teshuvah rabbi.” I discovered that there were myriads of people who needed to activate their spiritual batteries. After attending a single lecture, literally thousands were inspired to start their own journeys of return.
How did you keep your own batteries charged?
After years of my teshuvah and kiruv work, I took a break to concentrate on my own learning. I sat in the Chazon Ish Kollel in Bnei Brak and studied diligently for several years under the tutelage of HaRav HaGaon Yehuda Shapira, of blessed memory, meriting to be his disciple and aide for 26 years.
He was a special tzaddik, a master of Jewish law, with a keen understanding of the world. The Steipler conferred with him on certain halachic questions, and Rav Shach would ask his advice on certain matters as well.
When I founded the Shofar Organization, Rav Shapira agreed to act as president. When I started making public appearances again, small auditoriums couldn’t hold the crowds. So we began to rent large auditoriums – and then soccer and basketball stadiums – in city after city throughout the country.
We were on the road for three decades. We distributed massive amounts of my audio cassettes and 22 million CDs for free. With our videos on YouTube and our programs on Shofar TV, we touched the lives of millions of Jews.
Why do you think your lectures have been so successful? What about your message do you think grabs people?
Its clarity and sharpness, without unnecessary embellishment, spiced with humor and a willingness to call a spade a spade. The public was attracted by truths it hadn’t heard before, told in a straightforward style, heart to heart, and backed by intellectual argument and sound reason.
In almost all of your appearances, you invite men up to the stage to put on a kippah, and weeping women eagerly volunteer to wear a head covering for the first time. It seems too perfect to be true.
Most of the time, these people have listened to my tapes and watched our videos before coming to a lecture. Their hearts have already been awakened by Torah. When they see me live at a lecture with 10,000 other people like them, the group energy is the jolt of electricity they need to light up their darkness and spark a new beginning.
You have often spoken about the dangers of television and the Internet. Yet, you yourself use media to bring people closer to the Torah.
Sometimes you have to fight fire with fire. After our appearances continued to fill auditoriums and stadiums in city after city, the secular media initiated a smear campaign against me. They feared our success in returning thousands to Judaism would alter the demographics in the country and threaten the rule of the secular elite. Ami Ayalon, former head of the Shabak, stated: “Rav Amnon Yitzhak represents a greater threat to Medinat Yisrael than the terror waged against us.”
So, following the advice of HaRav HaGaon Yehuda Shapira, zt”l, we used their own weapons against them, as it says: “And he snatched the spear from the hand of the Egyptian, and he killed him with his own spear” (II Samuel 23:21). Through the Internet and TV, we succeeded in entering every home in Israel, turning teshuvah into a nationwide trend.
Not everyone in Israel has started to grow long peyos, though.
Not everyone, not yet. Nevertheless, with all of the secular Zionists’ opposition to the teshuvah movement, it has flowered in every corner.
A few years ago, you formed a political party but didn’t win enough votes to enter the Knesset.
As is widely known, I don’t vote in Israel’s elections, neither Knesset nor municipal council elections, and I don’t encourage others to vote either. However, HaRav Sheinman, of blessed memory, told me, “If a person has the power, it is a mitzvah to rescue others.”
So after we saw that voter surveys predicted we would receive eight or nine seats in the Knesset, we formed a party and started to campaign.
Why don’t you vote?
When I started appearing before the public, I asked the gaon, HaRav Shmuel Wosner, of blessed memory, what to answer people who ask me whom to vote for. He told me it was best not to take a stand. His counsel has guided me until today.
Additionally, political candidates don’t act according to their promises. Instead, they make compromises to preserve their seats in the Knesset – even if it means betraying the people who voted for them.
What were you hoping to achieve in the Knesset?
To help guide government policy from the inside by using our Knesset representation to influence decision-makers and by having information from inside sources close to me – things the general public don’t know. That way, I could analyze issues in a truthful manner without the political considerations, compromises, and deals that characterize politics.
Unfortunately, instead of fighting Yair Lapid, the Shas Party put all of its efforts into besmirching me out of fear that it would lose its monopoly over the Sefardi community. It did everything it could to sabotage our campaign, conveniently forgetting that I had aided its success in a substantial manner by influencing tens of thousands of Sefardi voters to return to Torah observance, with the help of Heaven.
The story is widely known and recorded in documentary films. Even after the elections, its incitement against me continued in a poisonous campaign of hatred and slander until HaRav HaGaon Yaacov Yosef, the son of HaRav Ovadia, of blessed memories, told them that they were “spilling blood in a witch hunt of slander without trial, and trampling on many prohibitions of the Torah.”
All because of jealously?
It begins with the fire of jealously, and then the lust for power and honor and the obsession to control the monies that government coalition members have access to becomes all-consuming. We became anathema to the existing religious establishment when it saw that the public – including tens of thousands of Sefardi Jews – were attracted to my brand of Avodat Hashem in a way that hadn’t occurred before in Israel, surpassing all other efforts combined and sparking an unparalleled wave of teshuvah without any political connections or funding or connection to any charedi community.
If you look through the newspapers of the charedi and dati communities for a span of several decades, you won’t find a favorable article on our success in any one of them even though we filled stadiums time and again with people hungry for a more inspiring understanding of Torah than they had encountered before. Secular newspaper chronicled the phenomena at length, but to the Torah monopoly in Israel, Amnon Yitzhak didn’t exist.
To my great chagrin, many young people in the charedi world have stumbled away from the path of Torah, and there is no one in the community who knows how to stand in the breach and prevent them from falling. These unfortunate souls don’t have a spiritual figure who can give them the advice they need, yet across the street we are lighting up the lives of people who are as distant from Torah as you can get, literally changing their lives in an evening – something you can witness at every lecture.
What do you think is causing the ever-increasing assimilation and alienation from Judaism throughout the world?
The biggest factor is the mega-expansion of the media – computers, Internet, smartphones, and the like – which are available to everyone, and the sudden exposure to all the impure cultures and temptations in the world along with spurious philosophies of life, which seduce people with their glib, intellectual, and seemingly rational façade.
All of this frightening bilbul (confusion) is only a click away. A person no longer has to disguise himself and sneak off to another city to satisfy his passions. Things that were considered forbidden in the past are accepted as the norm today.
Even if there are rabbis in the charedi world who possess the skills to save people from this tidal wave of pollution, they choose to keep themselves cloistered, for understandable reasons, in their sheltered ghettos, leaving the nation’s sheep to wander without a shepherd who knows how to relate to them in the proper manner to bring them back to the fold.
The Chatam Sofer explains in the introduction to his Responsa on Yoreh De’ah that Avraham Avinu was unique in that, with miserut nefesh and lack of concern for his own spiritual standing, he went out to the world, day and night, to save mankind from the falsehood of idolatry – a model of the Torah educator so lacking today.
What does it profit the world if a rabbi works on himself in the confines of his home until he becomes a great tzaddik and turns into an angel while the rest of mankind turns into beasts? Hashem has enough angels in his celestial abode.
Noach also was an outstanding servant of Hashem, but he was a private tzaddik. The flood was threatening his wayward generation, but he lacked the right style and language to relate to them. In the end, he could only save himself and his family.
Avraham is Avraham because he didn’t think of himself. He was driven to enhance the glory of G-d in the world and to make known His Kingship over all of the earth, even if it meant closing the Gemara to bring the distant closer to the word of Holy One Blessed Be He. The greatness of Avraham derives from his readiness to place the needs of the klal over his personal righteousness. Since we’re Avraham’s offspring, that’s the path that should guide us all.